Far away from ‘The Troubles’

Program gives Northern Ireland children 5-week slice of American life

Photo Courtesy of Children's Program of Northern Ireland
Photo Courtesy of the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland

For five weeks in the summer, many Minnesota families host Irish children through a program called the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland (CPNI). The organization is currently looking for host families in Stillwater and throughout the state.

CPNI began in 1973 after an Northern Ireland mother wrote the Fargo Forum newspaper asking for help to get her son out of Northern Ireland and away from the sectarian violence during “The Troubles.” The Troubles involved the Protestant Unionist and the mainly Catholic nationalist communities fighting each other over Northern Ireland’s status. Since then, 10- and 11-year-old children from Northern Ireland have visited Minnesota families for 40 years.

Photo Courtesy of the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland

Although the sectarian violence has subsided, prejudice between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics remains and CPNI hopes to break down those barriers. CPNI develops understanding and respect for diversity through relationships between children of all traditions.

“It’s a really cool program,” CPNI spokeswoman Karol Ann Baumeister said. “In Northern Ireland, there is a sense of hope for a better future but there’s still a lot of segregation between the groups. This program just lets kids be kids and our cross-community activities help kids work together and be kids because religion is not as much of an issue here.”

Dee Ryan from Stillwater hosted children from CPNI from 2005 through 2009 and is still in touch with one of her host children, Jade, who is 19 now.

“I think it’s just a great program. It changed all of our lives,” Ryan said.

The bond formed between Ryan’s children and Jade was something she loved seeing and she thinks it really helped her children gain a new perspective on life. Before Jade entered their lives, she hadn’t met anyone who was Catholic before. The Ryan family is Catholic, so that was a new experience but one that taught them not to take things for granted.

“There’s not a lot of pretense when it comes to an 11-year-old,” Ryan said. “We live a pretty cushy life. We live in a different kind of house. We have different religions, and those were pretty apparent. But when Jade got here, she didn’t know anyone who was Catholic, she didn’t know anyone from another city and she didn’t have a friend before that was so different but also the same. Without this program, Jade would’ve missed out on the opportunity and we would’ve too.”

Ryan said her kids and Jade took to each other quickly.

“On the second night, I had to tell them to shut up because they were giggling and whispering so much, but I loved that you know. I loved having that in my house,” Ryan said.

Photo Courtesy of the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland

The process to become a host family involves several steps. Ryan said families are interviewed by two people and they talk to the whole family about what they do, what they like and ask kids questions which include things like what they would tell their homesick friend. There are background checks on the family members and letters of recommendation must be given as well. The interviewers also talk to the kids alone. After that, they pair families with Northern Irish children.

When it comes to doing things with the guest child, Ryan said not to worry too much about it. The kids from Northern Ireland are here to find out what it’s like to live with an American family and host families should do what they normally do.

“It doesn’t have to be something special every day,” Ryan said.

In the past she’s taken her visiting children to the Mall of America, the State Capitol and Como Park Zoo. Also they’ve done outdoor picnics, swimming in lakes and the typical Minnesota summer activities people do. If a question of whether they like the food is a concern, Ryan said there are a lot of similar restaurants here that they have over there so it’s easy to find something they like.

She also added that people should expect the unexpected, but know that it works out and there’s great support staff, such as Irish chaperones that come along and stay at other homes near the kids if any help is needed.

Host families are needed by April 15. The visiting children arrive June 27 and departing July 31. For more information on the program go to http://childrensprogramofni.org/ To host a child call the Children’s program of Northern Ireland at 651-405-1108.